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Martin and Malcolm: How to Fight for Equality and Justice?

Photo by Thabo Jaiyesimi/SOPA Images/LightRocket

What Did MLK and Malcolm X Fight for?

The fight for civil rights for African Americans in the 50s and 60s was the common plight of several Black revolutionaries including MLK Jr and Malcolm X. They were both impressive leaders working to end racial injustice and discrimination, however it is worth looking at their differing philosophies and approaches to creating equality in an oppressive country.

Martin Luther King (MLK) is the most prominent figure identified in the American civil rights of the mid-20th century. He was greatly shaped by his Christian faith and role as a Baptist minister, and sought human rights and equality for African Americans, injustice victims of all ethnicities, and the economically disadvantaged. Malcolm X on the other hand was a foster child who had seen death, slavery and incarceration first hand. As a supporter of Black nationalism, a leader in civil rights, and a minister for the Black Muslim movement, his stances often put him at odds with the non-violent teachings of MLK. He urged Black Americans to protect themselves from white aggression "by any means necessary", and promoted Black self-defense, Black economic autonomy, and Black power.

MLK was behind significant events like the 1963 March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These events majorly contributed to the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. In 1964, he won the Nobel Peace Prize due to his use of non-violent resistance in achieving equal rights for Black Americans. Whereas Malcolm X condemned whites for historical oppression and initially referred to them as the ‘white devil’ until after his visit to Mecca where he saw all races mix together in brotherly love under one God. The Autobiography of Malcolm X inspired the Black Power movement and popularized his ideas.

What Are the Similarities Between Malcolm X and MLK?

It is evident that Malcolm X's and MLK’s methods of achieving equality and bettering humanity were quite different. MLK dreamt that working slowly and steadily, racial segregation would end, but Malcolm X felt that if Black Americans did not stand and fight, no dream could ever come to pass.

MLK claimed that non-violence is a political and moral strategy. He stated that non-violence is a weapon of strength and a weapon of brave, courageous people. He felt the tactic was necessary to put an end to all violence and racial hatred and later achieve equality among races.

On the other hand, Malcolm X argued that Black people had to defend themselves and act in self-defense. After his travels to the Middle East in 1964, he argued that the US Revolution would only be a true revolution once the Black people started implementing self-defense.

Their seemingly opposing ideologies are likely due to their vastly different life experiences and upbringing. MLK was brought up in an elite upper-middle-class household and received a solid education in the most prestigious historically Black all-men’s college, Morehouse College. Malcolm X grew up without a dad as his father was murdered by white supremacists. His father was murdered when Malcolm was only 6 years old. His mother was later sent to a psychiatric facility, forcing Malcolm X to enter the foster system. As a teenager, he hustled in Harlem and Boston and was later put behind bars for theft, where he spent 7 years.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are great iconic figures of the civil right movement. They were both leaders of their movements, where MLK served as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Malcolm X as the national spokesperson and minister of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Both icons fought for women’s education and married educated women. Their choice is another indication of the similarities in their ideologies that support the education of women.

Malcolm X's letter to MLK was a sign that the two parties were fighting for the same purpose. In the letter, Malcolm invited MLK to a rally where he assured him that the meeting would be orderly and designed to show the spirit of unity.

They both died through assassination. This clearly shows that they were fighting the same enemy — as much as they used different approaches.

What Was the Relationship Between Malcolm X and MLK Like?

According to Peniel Joseph, an author and Black Power scholar, MLK and Malcolm X became each other’s alter egos. The pair, on most occasions, were not on the same page. In many instances, Malcolm X criticized MLK and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for appeasing the white majority. According to Joseph, Malcolm X learned quite a lot from MLK. When Malcolm X spent his Spring in Washington, he was greatly influenced by MLK’s mobilizations as he brought together a large number of people. He was impressed as much as he was highly critical of MLK’s non-violence.

Malcolm X and MLK's relationship evolved. The central turning point was when in 1964, Malcolm X broke from NOI and decided to find his path. In the Ballot speech of 1964, Malcolm X talked about voting rights as part of Black freedom and liberation. In his interview with Robert Penn Warren, Malcolm X mentioned that MLK and he had similar goals but different methods of attaining them. On March 26, 1964, the paths of the two crossed at Capitol Hill when there was a debate on the Civil Rights Act. There, they both held press conferences to support the Civil Rights Act. Once, when they were in the same room where MLK was conducting his press conference, they met and exchanged pleasantries. Only a few photos captured this moment. It was the only time the two parties met.

Photo credit: Marion S. Trikoskor. Image credit: Universal History Archive

What can we learn from MLK and Malcolm X's relationship?

MLK and Malcolm X had varying tactics for achieving human rights and equality but what they did agree on was that they both deserved respect, support and allegiance. In any worthwhile endeavour there will be different sides of the issue and you will have to chose an approach you believe in most. As allies, and inclusive leaders, it is key to recognize that not all Black folks agree as we are not a monolith and don't have the same experiences or always hold the same opinions.

DEI work has begun to change the fabric of our institutions, our corporations and our communities by shedding more light on the existing inequalities and need for true repair. However, you're going to have to put your DEI strategy to test and identify what produces the desired result.

There are lessons that should be modeled and leaders to be groomed until human rights everywhere is a reality. It may take generations to prove, but until then we all have a responsibility to ensure our own workplaces, social circles and families are righting social ills and not contributing to them. Let's discuss your next steps on making this dream a reality.

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